Once considered unelectable because of his unblinking stare, his frightening policies, his complete lack of relevant experience and his unwillingness to give straight answers to simple queries, Mr. Forbes triumphed, these marketers believe, because the look of his TV commercials apparently persuaded voters he was as harmless and ineffectual as recent past presidents.
Mr. Forbes, the nominee of a fractured Republican Party who was also running on the Right-to-Life, Yes-to-Guns and Daddy-Made-Me lines, eked out a slim margin over the Democratic nominee, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. While political professionals are already hotly debating the reasons behind his success -- some believe Mr. Forbes' willingness to declare war on Canada over periodical mailing rates was the clincher -- consumer-products executives say the Forbes' juggernaut was propelled by a singular fuel: production design.
The Forbes campaign's TV spots were in black and white in settings that could pass for the Oval Office. "The way people are used to seeing a president is in that context -- black and white," the candidate's advertising advisor, William Eisner of Hales Corners, Wis., explained to The New York Times. "The gathered drapes and plastered ceilings, all the architecture is very similar to the presidential office, so they could envision him in the White House."
Mr. Eisner specializes in promoting rigid stiffs. His other accounts have included Aunt Jemima frozen breakfast products, Celeste frozen pizza, Mrs. Paul's frozen fish and Van de Kamp frozen foods. "We're trying to resuscitate brands all the time that lost their luster with consumers," the adman told the Times. "We're doing the same with Steve."
Convinced of the strategy's viability, a surfeit of brand marketers this week disclosed plans to reset themselves -- and, they anticipate, their futures.
Fast-food giant McDonald's Corp., smarting from years of price-cutting and lukewarm public response to its victuals, said it would film its next set of TV spots inside Le Cirque 2000, the tony New York eatery. "If the environment looks good, then people will believe the food tastes swell," said an executive at a McDonald's agency, Leo Burnett Co., who requested anonymity.
In deference to the brand's heritage, Burnett did plan on asking Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque's elegant owner, to wear a big red nose, the agency executive said.
Also this week, publisher Larry Flynt announced plans for a trade campaign that will feature Hustler on the shelves of Harvard University's Widener Library.
And in another sign "visual repositioning" was becoming the rage in marketing, the state of Arkansas announced its next flight of tourism spots will be set in Hawaii. "How better to cleanse the image of this great state?" asked incoming Arkansas Commissioner of Tourism Bill Clinton. "Besides, I hear the golfing is great."
For a time, it appeared nothing would salvage a Forbes campaign that seemed to stumble from gaffe to revelation with a regularity once reserved for congressional budget impasses. First came the disclosure the Forbes publishing "empire" consisted of nothing but a stale business magazine and the archives of Egg, a hip monthly that was passe after four issues.
Then came the discovery Mr. Forbes himself didn't do too much at the magazine. On top of a painstaking computer analysis by CNN that showed Mr. Forbes, in his years of editorializing, never once mentioned his opposition to abortion rights -- his major campaign plank -- the exposes appeared to doom his quixotic effort.
Mr. Forbes did not help himself when, questioned at a rare press conference about whom he would consider naming Secretary of the Treasury, he answered: "Ludwig von Mises or Joseph Schumpeter." Zealous campaign reporters soon discovered that both were dead.
But Mr. Forbes' free-spending of his inherited wealth -- for which Republican political operatives gave him the adoring nickname "Citizen Candy Kane" -- eventually put him back in the race and over the top.
And Bill Eisner, the Wisconsin marketing man credited with the Barnumesque achievement, has found himself the toast of Adland, flooded with calls from clients desperate for him to work his magic on them.
Asked about his next campaign, Mr. Eisner unveiled plans to visually reposition Slobodan Milosevic. He intends, he said, to pose the Serbian leader on the cover of Esquire, surrounded by smiling Kosovar children.